This week’s readings are here.
We have slowly been gaining insight into Luke’s understanding of Jesus these past few months–slowly because our gospel readings have jumped around in Luke and have also included readings from the Gospel of John. Among the most important texts for Luke’s understanding of Jesus is his teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:17:21, read on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany). There Jesus announces the fulfillment of the prophecy of the recovery of sight for the blind, that prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have the good news preached to them. Over the following weeks, we saw some of that activity. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we also saw the promise of forgiveness from a loving God.
It may be that it is only now, in the crucifixion scene, that many churchgoers will encounter central aspects of Luke’s image of Jesus. His prayer for forgiveness as he is crucified is a prayer that God will forgive his executioners whether or not they repent of their actions. In fact, Jesus says that “they know not what they do.” Jesus responds similarly to the plea of the second criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here, the criminal doesn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus extends his forgiveness nonetheless: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In Luke Jesus is crucified not to pay for the sins of humanity. He is crucified because the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators have chosen to execute him. The charges brought against him are political: perverting our nation,telling people no to pay taxes, and calling himself Messiah, a king (Lk 23:2). Pilate finds him innocent of the charges; Herod’s interrogation is inconclusive because Jesus doesn’t answer his questions. The second criminal also pronounces him condemned unjustly and the centurion says as Jesus dies, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Jesus’ innocence and his forgiveness of those who crucified him in spite of that innocence is central to the story. Luke will draw on that same theme in Acts when the first martyr, Stephen, asks God to forgive those who stone him.
Many contemporary Christians and those who struggle with Christianity wrestle with the meaning of the cross, with the doctrine of atonement, and especially with the notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. As hard as it is for us to get our heads around this notion, it may be that Luke’s understanding of the cross is still more puzzling–an innocent victim who prays for forgiveness: that’s an image of a God of great compassion, and of a Christ who is difficult to imitate. But forgiveness of others is at the heart of our faith (Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) and should also be at the heart of our ethics